The rain came down in sheets, the grey dampening a once crisp sky and dulling the buzz I had spent too much time and money cultivating. To say I was disappointed was to not understand how much I needed to stop the chaos or at least slow it down, how much I ached to escape your mother’s shame when she found us entwined and unabashed in the rooftop garden. It wasn’t the softness of my skin or the flatter bulge of my vulva that shocked her; she had always suspected your taste ran sapphic, it was my social standing and disregard for yours, or really hers as she saw what your neighbors most certainly did from their windows. You paused only a moment before running to soothe her seethe, while I stayed outside, slowly picking up lust-tossed clothes, folding yours, meticulously adjusting my shirt and pants and hair. I would not let her humiliate me, despite in many ways, having humiliated her. I see that now, and I know it is petty. Forgive me. I was not brought up in shame or guilt. I did not understand how you must have felt. I did not know that this, my inability to respond quickly, was would be what would break us apart. When you brought your sweets to the roof, offered me a plate of colored desserts, I had wanted just one bite of the yellow, unaware I should have savored them all.
Heather Bourbeau’s work has appeared in 100 Word Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, The MacGuffin, Meridian, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and SWWIM. She is the winner of La Piccioletta Barca’s inaugural competition and the Chapman Magazine Flash Fiction winner, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has worked with various UN agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia.
I had seven dreams about my grandmother dying. Cancer was the first; hairless, wrinkled, reaching out a hand to my father, her only son. Next came the car accident. She was always a reckless driver, I remember holding onto the door handle as she sped through lights and hollered at jaywalkers. They just kept coming, night after night: house fire, hit by a bus, choked on her favorite steak dinner. Tripped at the grocery store. Went to bed after a Dateline special and simply never woke up.
I didn’t know who to tell. I didn’t know if I was even supposed to say anything. I was a kid who snuck downstairs after bed to watch CSI from behind the couch, I had bad dreams all the time. Nights where I showed up to school naked, or accidentally locked Remy, our German Shepherd, in the basement. Even a hauntingly specific one of being attacked by those talking rats from some Disney cartoon. These dreams didn’t feel too different at the time.
The morning after the last one, my dad got a call at the breakfast table. It was brief, he said a few words, then went and locked himself in his office on the third floor. Not even my mom was allowed in. The funeral was two weeks later, a rainy Sunday spent wondering why I alone had been warned about this.
I never had another dream like that. Never even had a single nightmare after that week, as luck would have it. If I dreamt at all it was fairly tame - visiting Disney World, lost in IKEA, an especially memorable one where I married my favorite Starbucks barista. Three decades of good dreams nearly put that week from my mind, erasing whatever precognitive abilities I’d dared to assume I had.
My sister called this past Friday morning. She usually phones on Sunday so we can straighten out dad’s care schedule for the week, figure out who’s going to take him to the hospital when. It’s usually all very straight forward. Kara doesn’t beat around the bush; too many kids to wrangle, too little of her youth left.
“You know,” she started, taking a slurping drink of coffee, drowning out the background noise of the kids playing. “Elsie told me she had a dream about you.”
Meredith Sullivan is an actress and writer from Baltimore, currently living in Philadelphia. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A in fiction writing in 2017, and is still trying to put that to use somehow. Recently, she has been published in fresh.ink and Prometheus Dreaming.
So what now with the house gone? We weren’t allowed, a fireman said, to sift through the remains until we discussed it with our house insurance. Nails could cause injuries and the bare skeleton walls that survived could collapse at any moment. Windburned and dried eyes, we watched them hose the last of the embers.
A police officer asked for our information and said the Red Cross would come by. Offered condolences. A stranger approached us, passed out a pamphlet for his contractor’s company, then offered condolences. Neighbors came by foot and car, wide-eyed, at the tidy disaster. When the fire was 100% contained and evacuation orders lifted, only three houses were destroyed. Ninety-three acres blackened and reminded us of the other time our same block—because most of it was just yellow dry grass—burned without consuming any homes. That time, our house was lucky; the coops were untouched, peach trees bountiful, even the bees under the front porch eave whirled around paying no attention.
What were we supposed to do? Don old face masks found in the van and roamed the clothing section of Wal-Mart an hour before the store closed. Bought underwear, shirts, pants, toothbrushes, and towels with the Red Cross’s cards, totaling in the high hundreds for the nine of us. Drove to my married sister’s house across town and slept on couches and mattress toppers. My younger brother cried and so did two of my sisters.
What did we forget? Grandmother’s traditional clothes, sewn by her mother in Laos.
Grandfather’s last words to my father, recorded on an old Samsung phone. VHS home videos of my sisters karaoking and lip syncing to classic tunes. Brothers’ baby pictures, professionally taken with the moon and American flag as backdrops. My parents’ photos from the early 90s and 2000s--taken next to our neighbor’s floral garden, wearing puffy dresses and black suits as well as our traditional outfits—kept in large albums. Their documents from the refugee camp. Even the clothes mother sewed. The personal inventory list took weeks to complete. We didn’t know how to calculate all that loss.
Why did this happen? We checked CAL-FIRE daily but the cause was never updated. Insurance put us in a hotel for two weeks while we searched for a rental house but northern California lacked homes, especially after the Camp Fire. We still had doctor’s appointments. We checked the mailbox. We visited relatives despite COVID because grandmother craved jasmine rice and greens and I wanted anything but the constant fast food that cemented my stomach. We went back to the site and poked through wreckage but it was the sight of the chicken carcasses in the backyard that prompted my older sister to weep, insisting that their souls must be furious.
What did I remember? Dreading smoke clouds. Screaming for my older sister to flee the garden. Heaving grandmother’s suitcase into the van. Demanding everyone to get in the car. Seeing the house in the rearview mirror and believing the ancestors would protect it. Crying while driving because there was no home to return to. The bees and how, two days before the fire, my father sprayed them with water and destroyed their nests after all these years of tentative co-existence.
The first thing out of the doctor’s mouth was “how is your summer going?” and I felt like slapping her but I stayed in my chair, recalling ultrasounds with heartbeats and ultrasounds without, hexagonal pills and searing pain and a bag labelled “biohazard,” and I remembered the mockery of the sun on my face as I carried the bag on the bus in my purse and delivered it to the hospital where a nurse removed the container from inside the bag, held it up to the light and chirped, “You got the right thing!” and took it away to be tested since this was number four and four wasn’t normal, especially when you’re 29, and she called me a month later to tell me it was a “genetically normal baby girl” and had no other words since the usual comforts didn’t apply, and it occurred to me that I had no other memories of the summer except for the cloud that became the world so that even in the mirror there was only fog, and then the doctor said, “We can’t find the cause and there’s nothing else we can do, except maybe IVF but I doubt it would work,” and she went to fetch some papers while the med student beside her whom I’d barely noticed before, squeezed her hands excitedly and took the opportunity to say, “I find this all so fascinating!” and I found it all so strange that as a light goes out in one person, it ignites in another, and it seemed I had contributed to the circle of life.
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Maine Review, Pithead Chapel, Idle Ink, Streetlight Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal and others.
I need to make myself smaller. I need to not take up so much room. I suck the oxygen out of the house, this family. I’m busy shrinking myself when she comes into the only room in the house with empty hinges.
Mom has those eyes, and I know she’s about to say again (and again, and again) “Did you take your meds?”
Yes. It’s always yes. I swallow the pills every morning, round like a buoy. I do what I’m supposed to do even though nothing keeps me afloat.
Those eyes walk away, but they’ve rent my skin, and I seep, the blood rising. I try to unfurl my wings to fly away because the window still works, but my wings are sticky, and I can’t rise. A single feather falls. More will follow unless I’m very still, so I fold in on myself and try not to look up.
I need to make myself smaller. I need to not take up so much room. There’s not enough space, enough air for me in this house, in this family. Mom walks through the doorway to the open portal to where I live, the only room without a door.
Her eyes swallow me, and she digests me at a glance; I’m getting better at being small.
“Did you take your meds?” she asks. I nod because I need to take away the sadness, a darkness over the hope and the love. If I’m smaller, I won’t cast a shadow.
Besides, it’s always yes. I swallow the pills every morning, but I’m still the heaviest thing in the house, in the world. I will sink us all, and Mom’s eyes say she knows that, but she will always reach out her hand and let me drown her.
Mom’s eyes walk away, and I look at my window. I will be able to fly away, far, far, far, and Mom’s eyes won’t see me. I imagine I have wings, but I’m not a bird. I’m an anchor. My only view is the bottom, and I will sink down, down, down.
I need to make myself smaller. I need to not take up so much room. I am a vacuum that takes every breath meant for others. Mom pauses where my door used to be.
They all stop when they pass, but Mom is the one whose eyes hurt. She asks me in the only language we now speak, “Did you take your meds?”
Yes. It’s always yes. The pills are round like a seashell, but I can’t hear my own voice no matter what I press my ear to.
Mom walks away, and I’m tired. So, so tired. I think of sun. The beach. A single gull that circles the sky. I want to find that child who collected shells, holding them out to her mother who put them in a bucket like treasure. It’s too far away to see clearly, but I keep looking out the window.
Kathleen McGookey has published four books of prose poems and three chapbooks, most recently Instructions for My Imposter (Press 53) and Nineteen Letters (BatCat Press). She has also published We’ll See, a book of translations of French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poems. Her work has appeared in journals including Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, December, Field, Glassworks, Miramar, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quiddity, and The Southern Review. She has received grants from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.
Dear Mother, Yes, the glossy green and black tiled floor is sophisticated. Yes, the counters are bursting with baskets of roses and lilies and mums, all tied with coordinating silk ribbons. The air is so heavy with fragrance it could make a girl dizzy. But now there’s no pleasing Edith. At breakfast, she was dissatisfied with her soft-boiled egg and lukewarm tea. Even though she was not supposed to, she left lipstick stains on her cloth napkin and crumpled it by her plate. She says this flower shop, though small and brightly lit, with its cascade of daisies by the cash register, trumps all the gardens we toured yesterday. Because everything here is for sale.
We Have Grown Tired Of:
By the time we reached his room, he had returned to life, and so we stepped back from the wobbly bridge and waited. I wanted to ask him, “What was it like to be dead?” but I didn’t. Perhaps he wouldn’t have known because those brief moments of lifelessness had been a rehearsal.
He was moved to ICU where my mother, my sister and I sat stoically waiting for the few minutes twice a day when we could visit him. I suppose we could have done something else taken a walk, taken a break—but we stayed in place, planted there like the spring flowers blooming in the yards outside, but without their colors. I missed him already. He was my hero, my cheerleader, my confidante. I pictured the breakfast room table with an empty chair where he always sat. What would I do without my Daddy?
My mind flashed back to my childhood on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I was ten years old. It was late morning, time for the Yizkor service, when Jews remember the dead. My mother looked around nervously and shooed me out. Children did not attend Yizkor services. I scurried out of the sanctuary and hurried downstairs where other kids and adults who had not lost family members were gathered.
I wondered about the mysterious ritual going on upstairs. I could easily have found out because the service was in the prayer book, but I never looked, even at the first line. I didn’t really want to know. Knowing might have been bad luck. My friends and I went outside until it was safe to go back upstairs.
Visitation time for ICU patients came and I tucked my childhood memory out of my mind and followed my mother and sister into Daddy’s cubicle. “Where have you all been?” he asked. Those were the last words I heard him say.
The next day Mother left to get her hair done. So she could escape? Or so she would look nice for the funeral? Who knew?
On day three the doctor said my father’s kidneys were failing. “We can move him out of ICU so you can be with him.”
My mother shook her head no. He died alone.
It happened that night.
I went in to see him for the last time. I don’t know where Mother was but I know she wasn’t with me when I whispered my goodbye.
My sister had gone home to rest. I called and told her he was gone and then I waited in the hallway for her to appear. When she rounded the corner and walked toward me, I watched her take her first steps on the bridge I had already crossed. Together we would grieve, and together we would help our mother maneuver the rocky road she would have to travel without our dad.
That year, 1987, on the day of Yom Kippur, my sister and I said Yizkor for the first time. Afterward, we visited our father’s grave. In accordance with Jewish custom, we each left a rock on top of the stone to show that we had been there and that, for us, his memory was a blessing.
Thelma Zirkelbach has published micro essays, prose poetry, personal essays, memoir and romantic suspense. She enjoys writing short pieces that reflect her life. A native Texan, she lives in Houston.
After his death, my grandfather’s easy chair remained at the edge of the Black Sea, just over his property line, in the middle of the Yıldız’ small stretch of coast. He set it there to spite Gülben Yıldız, with whom he enjoyed a rivalry so bitter and ancient that no one quite remembered its origins, though it appeared to predate the fall of the Ottoman Sultanate. The two men had engaged in silent warfare for every decade of my youth in the form of theft, libel, and sabotage, springing leaks in one another’s boats, spreading ruinous rumors, and undercutting the other at market. When the two of them were old and unsteady on their feet, the rivalry culminated in my grandfather’s chair slowly rotting in the Yıldız’ sea air. Afternoons he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes there on their property, afghan on his lap, pointedly ignoring the entire Yıldız brood, who gathered atop the bluff to glare at him. If they started to throw things—fruit and driftwood—he put up the umbrella he brought for the purpose and remained still, smoking and watching the waves. For whatever reason they never tried to move the chair.
When grandfather died, old Gülben took over the seat. Gülben didn’t smoke, so his wife Nilgün started bringing him his fishing nets to repair there. Their children had one by one moved away, to America and Germany and Dubai. He hardly had to look at the nets while he worked, his expert hands a blur. I watched him from the edge of his land. The next afternoon I watched again. And the next. I wanted to see how his hands worked so fast. One evening he motioned me over. I sat next to the chair and watched his hands. He didn’t say a word to me but angled the seat so I could see better. When Nilgün brought his dinner she brought a plate for me too, and a small glass of Rakı. When it was time to turn in,Gülben rose and stretched. Before leaving he rested his hand on my shoulder and left it there a long time. I looked up and saw that he had tears in his eyes. We watched the sea together. He is gone now, and so is the chair. But whenever I return to this coast I can feel that hand, its skill and gravity, resting on my shoulder.
Saramanda Swigart is thrilled to be writing fiction exclusively after years of writing advertising copy and corporate literature. She completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Reed, The Alembic, Border Crossing, The Broken Plate, Caveat Lector, Clarion, Diverse Arts Project, East Jasmine Review, Euphony, Fogged Clarity, Glint Literary Journal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Grief Diaries, Levee Magazine, The Literati Quarterly, OxMag, The Penmen Review, The MacGuffin, Ragazine, Superstition Review, and Thin Air; her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train and a 2017 Pushcart Prize nomination. Saramanda is working on translating some of the more salacious stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Saramanda teaches at City College of San Francisco.
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